Since 2009, the federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour. Low-wage workers are actually worse off now than they were in 1968, when the minimum wage reached a peak of $8.56 an hour in inflation-adjusted dollars. Yet as sobering as these statistics are, they don’t capture the complete story. Workers who don’t receive tips are guaranteed $7.25 an hour, yet tipped workers only earn a measly hourly wage of $2.13. Even more staggering, a recent study found that 41 percent of New York City’s restaurant workers are food insecure, and tipped workers are 30 percent more likely to struggle to put food on the table than those who earn tips.
While the top earners in the restaurant industry can make a good living, the average tipped restaurant worker can only expect to take home about $18,200 a year. The majority of these workers are adults and nearly a third of them have children. If working families are going to have a shot at economic prosperity, let alone making ends meet, then something has to give.
Saru Jayaraman is working to change the system. The co-founder and co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) and director of the Food Labor Research Center at U.C. Berkeley, Jayaraman is an advocate for the radical transformation of our nation’s restaurants. She has led campaigns against some of the largest and most powerful lobbying groups in the country in order to win fair wages and better working conditions for restaurant workers. Civil Eats recently spoke with Jayaraman about the David vs. Goliath battle against exploitive employers, the power of collective action, and how the food movement can learn from the labor movement.
How did you get started working in the food system?
I was an attorney and an organizer working with low-wage workers in New York when 9/11 happened. About 13,000 restaurant workers lost their jobs in the weeks and months following [the attack]. A very tiny union [in the restaurant in World Trade Center Tower One] called me and one of the head waiters and asked us to start a relief center for the workers who lost their jobs and the families of the victims.
What inspires you to do the work that you do?
It’s definitely the 10 million restaurant workers in this industry. They are mothers, parents, immigrants—people from all over the world and from all kinds of backgrounds. They take great pride in their work. A lot of people think of these jobs as throwaway jobs and the restaurant industry itself likes to say that these are kids who are moving on to something “better,” when in fact the vast majority of people working in this industry are adults with children. And if they leave restaurants with high turnover, it’s not because they don’t want to stay in the industry, it’s because they’re moving from restaurant to restaurant trying to find something better.
What has been your biggest victory or success working in the food system? What has been your most difficult challenge?
We’ve won about 20 campaigns against exploitation in very high-profile restaurant companies, and every time that happens, it’s an indication that people coming together—workers, employers, consumers—to demand change actually does have success. Everyone does better when workers do better. [Together we can ultimately] overcome even the most powerful restaurant lobbies like the National Restaurant Association (NRA).
The biggest challenge is the size, scope, scale, and power of the opposition. The restaurant industry is the second-largest and fastest-growing private sector employer in the United States, and yet it [is also] the absolute lowest-paying employer. That is entirely due to the power of the NRA. They’re the most powerful employer lobby in the U.S., and the tenth most powerful lobbying group period.
The NRA paints the picture of a guy working at the fancy steakhouse or the fine dining restaurant rolling in tips. Unfortunately, a lot of consumers in the food movement eat at those kinds of restaurants and think that that’s true. In fact, 70 percent of restaurant workers are women and they largely work at Applebee’s, IHOP, Denny’s—these are the places where progressives in the food movement don’t eat.
What do you think is some of the most exciting work going on in our food system at large?
The most exciting work is when we come together—people who care about local and sustainable, about food security, about junk food marketing to kids and public health, about GMO labeling—with workers and labor issues. We all have common enemies in groups like the NRA, which deal regularly with the Monsantos and the Grocery Manufacturers Associations of the world. When we target our common rivals and let our elected officials know they can’t just be beholden to huge food corporations, that’s when we demonstrate our power and that’s when we win.
What is the most important change you would like to see in the food system in the next 5-10 years?
Coming together across silos and focusing on those with corporate power in the food system. If we don’t do those two things, this “movement” will quickly die. We’ll fizzle out because it’s so diffuse, it’s so disparate, it’s so heavily focused on alternatives and individual consumer action and behavior. Big Food corporations will just continue to win because by focusing on alternatives and consumer behavior, we’ve essentially ceded the public space to large corporations. That’s why the GMO labeling fights have been so hard and have failed again and again—we just haven’t asserted our collective power vis-à-vis large corporations.
What needs to happen for that change to occur?
Even if it’s small, people need examples of how we can actually do what I’m talking about. [The Food Chain Workers Alliance] initiated a joint campaign against the NRA together with food movement groups and women’s groups, targeting them not just on labor issues but [on junk food marketing and sourcing issues too]. This type of campaign will take seed and it will grow to get more people to come together and launch campaigns, even if they’re small, against corporate actors. The more of these that pop up, the more examples the food movement will have of how it can be done.
We can’t keep asking, “How can we work together?” We just have to get started.
Do you see yourself as part of a food movement?
Absolutely, but I also see myself as part of a labor movement, a women’s movement, a racial justice movement, and a movement for democracy and getting money out of politics. I think a lot of those things are very intersectional and very related to the food movement.
What do you think that movement needs to do to be more effective?
There needs to be more training and education in the true science, art, and profession of organizing. Organizing is people who are affected, not activists, coming together and asserting collective power vis-à-vis a target which has the decision-making power to change the material and base conditions that that community is experiencing. Anything without a target that ends with something cool, like a cooperatively-owned restaurant, is not organizing. That’s what I think the food movement can learn from the labor movement.
The labor movement can learn a lot from the food movement in terms of its ability to reach mass audiences and use popular culture and books and films to captivate very, very large groups of people.
What is one revolutionary food act you participate in?
Being a vegetarian and raising my kids vegetarian. That’s not something I’m pushing on other people. I just think that for our family, we want to raise our children to understand respect for all living things.
What would you want your last meal on earth to be?
Probably Indian food. Vegetarian, obviously.